History & Process

So, at this point I have self-published two short stories and written a novel that I am currently re-drafting, which makes me something between a novice and an amateur of a writer. Not that quantity of what one puts out into the world equates their value or skill, but at barely two years into this pursuit I am okay with admitting there is still a ton I simply don’t know. For want of not endlessly bleating my own horn, I thought I would experimentally cast out a post related to the writing process as I have experienced it thus far. Folks in my circles have kindly (to my surprise) had questions about this, so I thought I might address those questions all at once. This whole deal is a learning process for me, so I’d like to experience it along with you by sharing it out loud.

I say I’ve been at this for two years, and by that I mean that two years ago I decided that writing was going to be ‘the thing’ that I go after with all I’ve got. But really, in a sense, I’ve been writing off and on for most of my life, whether in music, comics, ‘scripts’ for homemade short films, or poetry (something I abandoned after age seventeen, and the world is better for it).

I wrote and illustrated my first short story at age seven or eight, and it consisted of three pieces of printer paper folded in half and stapled together. It was a horror/sci-fi called The Ooze, and I drew a cover and back for it with colored pencils, as well as illustrations opposite the text inside. The story was essentially a Ghostbusters rip-off about a little boy getting ready to take a bath when a slimy green substance oozes out of his bathtub faucet and comes to life, attacking him. The ooze-monster continues to grow until it bursts out of the house and rampages through the city. The army is called in and can accomplish nothing, for the monster absorbs all of their missiles into itself. The little boy becomes a hero when he mixes different spray-can chemicals from his basement into a lethal ‘acid’ mixture which he fires from a homemade sprayer fixed to his back. The ooze-monster melts and shrinks down into oblivion and the whole town lifts the boy up in their arms.

I think the above description has a higher word count than the actual story did.

The reason I bring it up is: I think I have always had a desire to create, and to tell good stories. It just took a number of years to pinpoint just how that would be best fleshed out.

The first intentional long-form piece I wrote was titled Manhattan and was a fictionalized account of one of my own trips to New York with a friend. My original plan was to write a series of these and compile them into a book that would loosely be based upon my travels, something along the lines of Kerouac’s On The Road. Writing Manhattan was a good warm-up, but when I was done I realized that, A). No-one would want to read that crap. The world hardly needs another self-focused barely-fictionalized memoir from a white American male trying to be clever, and B). My trip to New York was about the only one that I could remember with any legitimate detail. So that project was set aside.

Next, I wrote Clara’s Quilt and Michigan, Ten Cents over a couple of months, then let those two sit for about a year while I wrote a novel (currently still without a title), which brings us to today.

AND NOW, THE SELF-INDULGENT Q&A:

Where do you get your ideas? I have no idea, really, and across the board I’ve never heard any artist answer this question with definition. Ideas kind of pounce on you from out of nowhere; from books, from movies, from songs, from art, from people you observe on the street, from life.

Do you write your ideas down in a notebook? Yes and no. The best ideas usually stick around without having to be written down, but I do use a journal to flesh out details and organize my thoughts. When I get stuck on a story (I hate calling it this, but: writer’s block), I have to sit quietly and just think about it for a while, then write out some possible directions, and usually a solution will wiggle itself out somewhere.

What is your editing process? So far, I have done about five re-writes on everything I’ve released. That may sound daunting, but it’s really more like three big re-drafts and two little ones. Plus, as a rule, the story tightens up every time, so the later drafts go by more quickly. I usually let a couple of perceptive reader friends read the semi-final product too, just to get content feedback and zap any grammatical errors. Even though it sucks sometimes, it’s important to get your work in front of other eyes and hear the truth about possible shortcomings.

Do you write every day? How much do you normally write? I certainly try to writesomething every day. Primarily this will be working on new material for a story or editing finished material, but I also count writing blog posts or book reviews as part of that since it is still creative exercise. Writing new stuff, I try to hit around 1500-2000 words a day, and with editing I try to get through roughly a chapter at a time. That said, I have learned that it is much better to simply write until it isn’t fun anymore instead of trying to muscle through to a specific goal. While you still have to put in the work, if you’re not feeling the vibe and enjoyment of it, it probably won’t end up being very good writing.

And lastly, here are some of the most helpful pieces of writing advice I have ever heard. These come from a number of sources, and I’m still gathering more all the time, but the things that have really stuck with me are:

-You have to put the work in.

-You have to finish things.

-If you write only when you feel inspired, you might be an okay poet, but you will never be a novelist. Push through those uninspired moments, because when you come back to it, you won’t remember which parts you did or did not feel inspired about. You will only recognize what feels true and what doesn’t in the context of the story.

-You have to believe that you are writing a story that only you can tell.

-Don’t write for your worst critic (which is probably you anyway), write for that person in the world who will find your book to be the best thing they’ve ever read in their life.

-If one book or project is burning you out, leave it in a drawer for a couple weeks and work on something else.

-You have to view your reading time as every bit as important as your writing time.

-No one cares about your first draft, because no one ever has to see that. It can be a jumbled up mess at the first go, but you can always shape it up on the next pass.

Well, that’s that. Whether this was useful or not, I don’t know. But thanks for sticking through it, if you read down this far. Perhaps I’ll do another one of these shamelessly self-focused deals once I have a few more notches on my belt.

-D.G.